Lawmakers had several questions Monday about the Idaho Education Network (IEN), the program designed to give broadband Internet access and broader education opportunities to Idaho public high schools. The state is currently in its first year of the first phase of the IEN. The program helps students take college and high school level classes that aren’t available at their school, using video conferencing and other software.
“We no longer have to take the student out of the classroom, the classroom comes to the student,” said Teresa Luna, the chief of staff of the Idaho Department of Administration, which is implementing the IEN. She is the sister of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna.
Lawmakers at an education panel last week were impressed by the IEN technology and the opportunity for high schoolers to graduate with a year of college credit, but on Monday, members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) questioned the price tag and implementation of the system.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity to the project," said Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls. “My concerns center around the cost and sustainability of the project.” Funding for IEN current comes from the federal stimulus plan, competitive grants, and the federal E-rate, which provides subsidies for schools for new technology. A grant from The Albertsons Foundation will replace the stimulus dollars for the next two years, but it is not clear where IEN will receive its ongoing funding. “There are a lot of questions surrounding the cost of the program,” McGeachin said. “There are a lot of details that need to be accounted for."
Some legislators on JFAC also had concerns about how IEN is installing its Internet connections in schools. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said some local Internet Service Providers (ISP) have been shut out of IEN’s installation process. “The way we are proceeding, there is not an opportunity for local providers to see if they can provide the connectivity and service that we need for this program,” Ringo said. “Some of them feel they can do this more economically. It seems they’re being left out of the conversation.”
Luna said the IEN’s broadband connections need more reliable and faster, higher bandwidth service than most public ISPs can provide. “Using the public Internet for education is like driving across Idaho while on your cell phone,” she said. “The signal goes in and out. Sometimes you have clear, quality service and sometimes you don’t. Imagine trying to teach a class to a group of 15-year-olds using that level of service.”
Ringo said a local ISP told her it could meet the IEN’s demands, and worries about rising costs due to a duplication of effort by the state. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, shared those concerns with Luna. “We find ourselves, particularly in some areas, where we have unplugged existing networks and replacing them with lower-bandwidth networks,” he said. Cameron said this happened in schools in Rexburg.
“That did not happen,” Luna told Cameron. “We have switched providers, but we have not overbuilt or added new providers anywhere … We have not shorted anybody on their bandwidth.”
“This is a very troubling area of the budget,” Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said. McGeachin and Ringo both said they did not get all the answers they wanted from Luna about IEN, but McGeachin said she expects to pin down the financial details of IEN before JFAC starts setting the next state budget in the next few weeks.
The Idaho Department of Administration also faces a lawsuit from Syringa Networks, an Internet and telecommunications company, over losing out on a multi-million dollar IEN contract to Qwest, despite offering a lower bid.